US President Joe Biden has extended the major disaster declaration for Florida to 60 days, which allows the United States federal government to fully cover the cost of debris removal and sheltering in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian that battered the state last week, destroying homes and businesses and killing dozens.
During a visit to Fort Myers on Wednesday, Biden pledged to put the full weight of the federal government to help Florida with the recovery and rebuilding efforts.
“I want the people of Florida to know you have my commitment and America’s commitment that we’re not going to leave; we’re going to see you through this entire process,” Biden said.
“And it’s going to take a hell of a long time – hopefully without any snags in the way. Later after the television cameras have moved on, we’re still going to be here with you. We’re still going to be moving. We’re still going to be doing everything we can to try to put your lives back together again.”
The president surveyed the damage from the storm and met with local residents and business owners during his trip on Wednesday, accompanied by state officials, including his political rival Governor Ron DeSantis.
Speaking alongside Biden on Wednesday, DeSantis praised cooperation with the federal government and thanked the Biden administration for extending the disaster declaration, which he called “significant help”.
He said electricity in Florida has been restored to 97 percent of customers, including 85 percent of southwestern Lee County, where the hurricane made landfall.
“We are cutting through the red tape – and that’s from local government, state government all the way up to the president – so we appreciate the team effort,” DeSantis said.
For his part, Biden stressed a message of unity in the face of the disaster. “We’re in this together. This is the United States of America, the United States of America. It’s not something else,” he said putting an emphasis on the word “united”.
Biden had dismissed concerns that his relationship with DeSantis – a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2024 and vocal critic of the White House – would affect the push to help Florida.
“This is not about anything having to do with our disagreements politically; this is about saving people’s lives, homes and businesses. That’s what this is about,” the US president said last week.
The hurricane caused catastrophic flooding and destruction across southeastern parts of the US, killing more than 100 people. Florida was hit the hardest by the storm, which also wreaked havoc in the Carolinas.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters on Wednesday that the federal government has nearly 4,000 personnel on the ground to help with the rescue and relief efforts.
“We have 17 search-and-rescue teams still in Lee County that are going door by door to make sure that we have accounted for everybody,” she said.
“Yesterday alone, they were able to assess 24,000 structures. They’re going to continue to be in the county until every structure has been looked at and cleared to make sure nobody still needs rescue.”
Criswell added that FEMA is helping with transitional sheltering for people whose homes were destroyed in the storm, saying that the property damage – which is still being assessed – is going to be in the billions of dollars.
“We’re going to continue to move in resources and support as we start the rebuilding efforts,” she said. “And as always, we’re going to be really focused on as we rebuild that we’re doing it in a way that’s going to make these communities more resilient.”
Florida and the Caribbean have seen an uptick in regional flooding and devastating storms due to the climate crisis.
On Wednesday, Biden said the hurricane ended the discussion on whether climate change is real and needs to be addressed. “The key here is building back better and stronger to withstand the next storm,” he said. “You can’t build back to what it was before; you’ve got to build back better because we know more is coming.”